Interview with Steve Bramson
Composer of Don Mckay, Scooby-Doo On Zombie Island,
JAG, NAVY: NCIS, The Adventures of Young Indiana Jones, Tiny Toon Adventures
and Theme Park Disneyland Paris (Space Mountain)

May 4, 2009

Composer Steve Bramson has had a very successful scoring career in television and film since moving to Los Angeles over a decade ago from New York. He has the distinction of being the last composer to score a weekly TV drama using a live orchestra. His successful transition to film is apparent with «Don McKay» which premieres at Tribeca Film Festival on April 24th 2009.

(Hollywood, CA) Award-winning composer STEVEN BRAMSON scores the indie-thriller DON MCKAY, directed by Jake Goldberger. The film stars Thomas Haden Church and Elisabeth Shue. Bramson created a diverse score that sets the musical tone of the suspenseful love story. The score ranges from restrained, featuring a blend of acoustic and synthetic instruments often used in unconventional ways that highlight the mystery, to pulsating which accentuate the surprises that unfold.

DON MCKAY is the story of a high school janitor, who leaves his hometown only to return 25 years later after receiving a letter from his high school girlfriend saying that she is dying and wants him to return. This homecoming brings the janitor, Don McKay (Thomas Haden Church) more than he bargains.

Steve Bramson’s scoring accomplishments encompass orchestral and electronic work for film, television, concert as well as amusement rides. He scored weekly with a live orchestra over 200 episodes for the dramatic series JAG which ran for ten seasons. That relationship led to episodes of NCIS. Other projects include the critically acclaimed series YOUNG INDIANA JONES, THE NINE and JOURNEYMAN. He is well-versed outside of the realm of drama which is evident by his scores to the animated children’s film SCOOBY DOO ON ZOMBIE ISLAND and Disney’s TIGER CRUISE. Bramson’s diverse credits include, IN ENEMY HANDS and the musical SHIMMY. His classical training led to a commission by legendary trumpeter Jon Lewis to write a trumpet concerto for orchestra.

Bramson also created the music for the ride Space Mountain at EuroDisney in Paris which he recorded with a 55-piece orchestra. Steve Bramson accomplishments have been recognized with an Emmy Award for “Outstanding Music Direction and Composition” for TINY TOON ADVENTURES, two Emmy nominations for his work on JAG and multiple ASCAP awards.

Mister Bramson, would you please introduce yourself for all our readers?

Hello all. My name is Steve Bramson. I am a composer living in Southern California and I write music for film and television. I come from a small town about 1 hour out of New York City and grew up in a family of musicians: my father, a Juilliard-trained clarinetist became a music teacher and businessman and my mother was a renowned operatic soprano who performed and thought in and around the New York area.

My early exposure was mostly to classical music with a small dose of jazz via my father's experiences playing and arranging for jazz big bands when he was a young man. Although I began studies on piano at a very young age, I took up the trumpet in grade school but eventually returned to piano after I discovered the more contemporary jazz of the 50's, 60's and 70's. I was involved in music in college, playing and writing for my own small groups and eventually enrolled in a Masters degree program at the Eastman School of Music in upstate New York.

It was during that time in the early and mid-1980's that I became transfixed with film music. My first loves in film music were Erich Korngold and Elmer Bernstein and, later, John Williams. Of the contemporary film composers, I have admired the work of Thomas Newman and John Powell, among others.

How would you characterize your own musical style and how did your style change and evolve with the time?

With early influences such as Korngold, Williams and Laurence Rosenthal, my own style of film composing was in the same classic vein, with strong melodies, rich harmonies and use of traditional orchestral scoring. Much of the work I've done over the years was suited to this type of scoring, including the series JAG, with it's larger-than-life hero and adventures.

All the while I continued to explore new approaches to scoring increasingly familiar dramatic situations but real change for me came by necessity with my work on my two most recent series The Nine and Journeyman. These were very contemporary stories, the first involving a present-day hostage-taking and the other, time travel. Stylistic and budget requirements necessitated recording in my home studio using samples and synthetic sounds and percussion.

As a result the style of these scores are more rhythm-driven, harmonically stagnant (though, hopefully, still interesting) and the melodies are more restrained. The music to Don McKay is also a departure form the "old-school" style of score.

How did you come on child’s projects like Scooby Doo or Tiny Toon Adventures? What did those experiences bring to you?

Scooby Doo On Zombie Island came as a result of some early work I did for Hanna Barbera beginning with a short-lived animated series called Fish Police. This led to work on a few other programs for them including A Flintstone Christmas and a Yogi the Bear Easter special.

Tiny Toons came directly from my work as an orchestrator for composer Laurence Rosenthal on one of the first scores for that series. It began with a very brief cue that I wrote for Larry and them a few more ghost writing assignments that eventually led to my own episodes. I enjoyed working on all of these animated projects. A lot of animated programs and films lend themselves nicely to the traditional approach to scoring I mentioned earlier. And there is a wild abandon that usually goes along with them to one degree or another: a playful silliness and an other-than-real quality which invites a lot of unbridled creativity. And of course, I grew up watching the original Warner Bros cartoons with those great Carl Stalling scores that I loved so much!

May you tell us more about your score for Disneyland Paris roller coaster called «Space Mountain - De La Terre A La Lune»? Did you tested the first Space Mountain on your own to adapt your score with the ship like did Micchael Giacchino for Mission 2? May you explain it? What do you think about the attraction and about the new score? Did you work with Michael Giacchino for the second Space Mountain (Mission 2)?

I can only comment on my own experiences with the original score to the attraction since I have not heard nor ridden the new ride with Michael's score. This was without question the most unusual job I've ever had and certainly one of the most challenging and great fun.

After composing a theme based on discussions with the creators of the ride and working with a computer generated image, I went to France with my stopwatch and rode the rollercoaster probably about a dozen times taking samples and averaging the times it took for the trains to traverse the four sections into which each trip was divided. The attraction was designed so that as any given car passed a certain point along its journey, a switch was triggered and the music would advance to the next section. This system allowed the music to stay roughly in sync with the train as it move at varying speeds along its way.

The music, conceived as one 2 1/2 minute piece, was divided into four segments, the first three ending in a fermata, or hold, for several seconds. This would allow enough time for the slower-travelling trains to "catch up" and then continue on in sync. Once I had determined the average length of each segment, I went back to the States and composed the music and produced a rough synth version which we then took back to Paris. There the music was installed on the trains and I rode again probably another dozen times to make sure everything was working and timed-out properly. I returned home, made adjustments, orchestrated and then recorded the final score for a 55-piece orchestra at Paramount Studios in Hollywood. I did not hear the final version in place until years later when I was visiting France for an unrelated project. It was a pleasure to finally hear it as it was intended and to know that so many had been enjoying my music.

What are your experiences and your feedback about your cooperation and work with Disney?

I had a wonderful experience working with everyone at Disney on that project. It was a wonderful opportunity for me to indulge my love for the great classic adventure film scores. I really have never done anything quite like that since. It was really a one-of-a-kind project.

I would love to work on any project with Disney: movie, animation or theme park. I think there are many wonderful opportunities for a composer in many of the projects produced by Disney.

With whom did you work on the «Don McKay» Project and how did you come to that project? How would you describe your method of work and the style of your score to this movie?

The writer-director, Jake Goldberger, and I are with the same agency. My agent told him about me. I read the script, sent Jake some of my music and then we met for an hour or so to talk about his film. Once I began writing, I worked closely with Jake and the film's editor Andrew Dickler. We knew early on that the score would be very important to the film and that it should have a distinct personality.

The movie is a complex mixture of mystery, thriller and romance with an overidung quirkiness and the music had to reflect these varying aspects of the story while maintaining a consistent style. I knew that piano would be a central character in the score and it is used prominently throughout. The score evolved to become essentially an acoustic score with just a few recurring instruments augmented with some simple ambient synthetic sounds. I brought in a cellist and a guitarist to round out the ensemble. I explained to them the feeling I wanted to evoke and gave them a few sketched out ideas to which they added their own ideas which included some less than conventional ways of playing their instruments.

May you tell us something about your further projects? Is it for a movie, for television, for an event or for a video game? If you could choose your next project, what kind of a job would you like to do?

I am currently working on a commission from trumpeter Jon Lewis that will feature him with chamber orchestra. In the meantime I am looking into several projects both in television and film. Any intriguing project that would inspire me would be welcome.

Something special, a scoop for our readers and your fans?

Nothing really. I suppose I can mention that I am in the process of revamping my website. There will be more music samples and information on my current and upcoming work, Stay tuned!

Thank you very much for your time and this interview. We wish you all the best with current and future projects. Hope to be hearing from you soon - maybe for further interviews. Best greetings from Switzerland and France.

Thank you very much for inviting me to share my work with your readers.

Fabrice Steurer Interview by Christine Blanc

Special Thanks to Melissa Mc Neil

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